Family Courts Need Reform, Say Judges, Legislators


Keep em coming Peter Jamison! Each and EVERY State in the Nation needs to take your lead!


Family Courts Need Reform, Say Judges, Legislators

By Peter Jamison Wednesday, Mar 23 2011

Our March 2 cover story, "Illegal Guardians," detailed problems in the state family courts' procedures for investigating allegations of child abuse and spousal battery in divorce proceedings — and four cases in which custody decisions led to children being placed with physically or sexually abusive parents. In one, a 9-month-old boy was murdered by his father after a judge refused the mother's request for a protective order.

Fred Noland

Since then, SF Weekly has spoken with two state officials who have been at the forefront of family court reform. They agreed that the problems need to be addressed, but had different ideas about where to start.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jerilyn Borack served on the state's Elkins Family Law Task Force, which issued a 2010 report on how to improve litigants' experience of the family courts. She says the key to improving court assessments of potential child abuse is devoting more resources in the form of money or personnel to the system. That could allow more time to look into abuse accusations when they arise, just as significant time is spent appraising the value of property divided in a divorce settlement. "I don't know why there is any more reticence to deal with an allegation of sexual abuse as to deal with, 'The house is worth $2 million; no, it's worth $200,000,'" she says.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) thinks the courts need more than just additional resources. He says they need strict monitoring to ensure that officials properly review abuse accusations. "There needs to be some response if courts are not abiding by the law," he says.

Leno was the driving force behind a recently completed audit of the family courts in Marin and Sacramento counties, which found that mediators in both courts appeared to lack adequate qualifications to do their jobs. Following the completion of that audit, he says the courts have until January 2012 to "clean up their act."

At that point, he says, he will weigh whether additional legislation is necessary to push the judiciary toward reform. He says it can be politically sensitive to challenge the authority of state judges and their advisers, but that in light of the "horrific and frightening" cases described by SF Weekly, lawmakers might have no choice. "Part of the delicacy here is that we're talking about a separate but equal branch of government," he says. "But when you see the kind of abuses that you reported on, and that we uncovered through our audit, I think the legislative branch may need to step in."